Connecting Texas books and writers with those who most want to discover them
Kay Ellington has worked in management for a variety of media companies including Gannett, Cox Communications, Knight-Ridder, and the New York Times Regional Group, from Texas to New York to California to the Southeast and back again to Texas. She is the coauthor, with Barbara Brannon, of the West Texas novel The Paragraph Ranch.
H. G. “Buzz” Bissinger is the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of five books, including the New York Times bestsellers Three Nights in August and Friday Night Lights, the classic that inspired the acclaimed movie and television series. He is a longtime contributing editor for Vanity Fair and has written for the New York Times, the New Republic, the Daily Beast, and many other publications. He divides his time between homes in Philadelphia and the Pacific Northwest.
Praise for Buzz Bissinger's Friday Night Lights
“Friday Night Lights offers a biting indictment of the sports craziness that grips … most of American society, while at the same time providing a moving evocation of its powerful allure.” —New York Times Book Review
“Superb and disturbing. . . . More than a sports book, it’s a search for the America of ordinary people.” —Newsday
“Bears comparison to the brightly illuminating fictional works of Ring Lardner and Jack London. . . . Friday Night Lights is a book about lust and longing, aspiration and education, sex roles, race relations, economic uncertainty and national identity.” —Philadelphia Inquirer
“A pressure-cooker of a book, it scalds . . . Bissinger touches the real boy in American manhood when he writes about game-time Friday night.” —Christian Science Monitor
“Not only one of the best sports books in recent years, but one of the most revealing looks at America’s small-town values— good and bad—you are likely to read.” —Denver Post
“[Bissinger writes] with empathy, and he writes superbly.” —Houston Chronicle
“A clear and chilling depiction. . . . An athletic Common Ground.” —Boston Herald
“Bissinger’s book moves far beyond sport, in a telling, damning sociological sketch.” —Miami Herald
“Penetrating and evocative. . . . A story that is bigger than Odessa, bigger than Texas for that matter. The undercurrents that shape society are all at play here.” —Milwaukee Journal
“Moving and troubling. . . . Engrossing.” —Pittsburgh Press
“A great job of capturing Odessa as it really is. . . . Readers who can read the book without applying their own emotions will find times when they want to cry.” —Odessa American
“Fascinating and colorfully written.” —Boston Globe
Buzz Bissinger has been writing books for a quarter of a century, but Texans will always remember him for Friday Night Lights. Odessa Permian sign photo credit Robert Clark (courtesy of Da Capo Press)
Pulitzer Prize–winning author H. G. “Buzz” Bissinger became a household word in Texas a quarter of a century ago with his chronicle of a season in the life of Odessa’s Permian Panthers — the coaches, parents, fans, and the players who bore the brunt of the city’s aspirations as the storied Mojo high school football dynasty. Twenty-five years later Bissinger revisits the story in a 25th Anniversary edition, and he talks with us via email as he gears up to travel across Texas once more.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: When did you decide that you wanted to be a writer?
BUZZ BISSINGER: I knew at the age of nine or ten I wanted to be a newspaper reporter. I grew up in New York City. There were seven different daily newspapers back then and every member of the extended family had a favorite one. Newspapers were everywhere and I fell in love with them, the miracle in my mind that they started afresh every day with new stories and information. I found it very exciting and romantic. I began to write for my high school paper, which came out weekly. Then at college where the paper came out daily. Most of my college life was spent at the Daily Pennsylvanian at the University of Pennsylvania. I went to work professionally at a paper two weeks after graduation in 1976 in Norfolk, VA. Newspaper reporting was very hot then because of Watergate. I applied to 306 papers and got two and a half job offers.
What inspired you to come to West Texas to write a story about high school football?
When I was about thirteen I read a story in Sports Illustrated by Dan Jenkins about a high school quarterback named Jack Mildren from Abilene Cooper, later to become the first great wishbone quarterback at Oklahoma and lieutenant governor of the state. He was the God of the town playing in front of 15,000 on a Friday night. Everybody knew who he was. He wasn't that much older than I was and I was struck by what it was like to be that famous at such a young age, to have that kind of exposure. I remember being deeply affected by The Last Picture Show about small-town Texas. High school football was seminal part of town life and in a little bit of fate the Jeff Bridges character at the ends leaves to work in the oil fields in Odessa.
It really kicked in in my early thirties in 1986 or 1987 when I had time off from the Philadelphia Inquirer and drove cross country with a friend. We took the southern route through Georgia and Alabama and Mississippi and Louisiana and Texas. We went through small town after small town. Main street in many of them was dead and dried up. But a few blocks out was the high school stadium, beautiful, immaculate, the field green and watered. It just hit me that these were not just stadiums but temples that brought the entire community together on a Friday night, gave them something to believe in, a kind of religion.
I knew I had to do the book in Texas. Finding Odessa Permian was easy. It was almost mystical back then, a West Texas team that was undersized but incredibly disciplined and tough and well-coached and was at that point the winningest team in Texas state history, making the playoffs every year and getting into the finals or semi finals routinely. I remember a college recruiter from UCLA telling me to just take a trip there and look at the stadium. I did in the spring of 1988 and when I saw Ratliff, built in 1985 at a cost of nearly $6 million with seating for roughly 19,000, I knew Odessa was it.
How much of a time commitment did you make to the original Friday Night Lights book?
I received permission to have full access to the team. I went to Odessa in July 1988. My family joined me in August. We rented a house and lived there for a year. I left my job as an editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer and never returned.
What was Mojo like in its heyday? How would you describe it?
The book best describes it or tries to describe it: an incredible spectacle of team and town and thousands drenched in Mojo black and marching band. All of it taking place in a stadium in the West Texas desert: it felt like a rocket ship landing on the moon, pulsating, alive, electric. The team was a remarkable amalgam of precision. I had been a huge sports fan all my life. Had season tickets to the New York Jets back in the heyday of Joe Namath and the New York Giants. We once went to three games in a weekend. But nothing compared to these games in 1988. Nothing. Not just the spectacle but the almost spiritual connection between team and town. They really did rise and fall with the team's outcome. You could literally feel the pressure being placed upon these kids.
When the book first came out, the reaction was pretty heated in Odessa. What was that like for you?
I was prepared for it. I knew there were things that were controversial and would upset the town. But frankly they upset me more, in particular the racism directed at the black running back Boobie Miles and the misplaced academics and the idea these kids really had no life after football. What I thought would be more of a Hoosiers' experience became something dark. I was supposed to do a book signing in Odessa to kick off the book tour but had to cancel it after threats of bodily harm were made. Those threats were taken seriously. The coaches never talked to me again (except Gary Gaines when I sought him out in 2004 on the eve of the film). People in town I had great fondness for never talked to me again. But I didn't know what would unfold in the book. I could not predict. As a journalist I could not simply ignore what went on. What became crucial was the support of the players. They all said the book was accurate. One disagreed with the racial aspects but did not dispute the facts. His feeling was what I wrote about in Odessa could be anywhere. Sadly he is probably right.
Having said that, I have been back to Odessa many times. And for me at least, time has greatly tempered the controversy. Seeing all the players recently was wonderful and very emotional for me. And it brought back the best of high school football in Odessa when it was king, not the out-of-control hysteria that it should not return to.
How active were you in the development of the movie and the TV series? What was that like?
Studios pay authors for their rights to basically shut up. I agree with that. If you are afraid of what they will do your book then don't take the money. I like money. The film was based on the book and I had the advantage that it was directed by my second cousin Pete Berg. I was very close to his family growing up and remain so. At the very least he returned my phone calls. He was very upfront that some of the deeper themes of the book — racism, misplaced academic priorities — would not be fully addressed but lightly touched on at best.
I told him I understood that but the one thing he could not do was have Permian win at the end and tie everything in a tidy bow. Previous scripts actually had done that. Pete listened and had no intent to change the ending anyway, realizing there is far more drama in losing than winning. I liked the film. I thought Pete captured the spirit of the book — the pageantry and spectacle and crazy pressure placed upon the kids and how they overcame it because of their belief in the team no matter what the sacrifice. The football scenes were incredible. The film did soft-pedal aspects of the book, in particular the portrayal of Boobie. He was ostracized from the team completely after he got hurt and it became obvious he could not play. In the film he embraces the team once again.
The TV show was inspired by the book. It was set in the present day with a fictional town. Many of the themes explored in the book were explored in the TV show. The original characters were obviously based on some of the players. But the television show created its own dimension, quite admirably. Just for the record I did not become rich off the television show. The opposite frankly. What I am proud of is how all three iterations of Friday Night Lights have received critical acclaim. i cannot think of anything similar to it except perhaps M*A*S*H. I am just waiting for the musical and theme park attraction.
You kept up with some of the boys through the years. Some more than others. What was that like?
I kept up with Boobie and Brian Chavez the most. But all six have always been in my heart. I saw all of them in 2004 when the film came out. Reuniting with them for the 25th anniversary edition was wonderful and important and very emotional for me. They are friends for life. I have been in constant touch with them since.
What do you think of all of the recent awareness about concussions and injuries in football?
The awareness is a really good thing. Now it is up to parents and kids to pay attention to it or not. I love football. I like the violence of it because it is violent. I like the hits. I think the game has already been watered down because of the concern over concussions. My hope is that technology will greatly help solve the problem. The protocols in place help as well. It is important to make sure all parents and players do know of the risks going in. I do not want football to disappear because of concussions. It won't. It is too ingrained into the American culture. And by the way football is not the only sport where concussions take place. Hockey is just as violent. From what I have read women's soccer results in the most injuries overall.
Which sportswriters do you follow now and admire?
Most of the sportswriters I admire no longer write: Frank Deford. Dan Jenkins. [The late] Ron Fimrite. Kenny Moore. They were the great ones at Sports Illustrated. W. C. Heinz. Also George Vecsey of the New York Times. I still like William Rhoden and Harvey Araton. I grew up worshipping them. They were classy and informative without the snark and snap judgment that routinely exists today. They believed in reporting and letting readers draw their own conclusions based upon the facts. They also wrote beautifully. Most sportswriting today is terrible and driven by so much cliché a computer could really do it. I do admire Bob Ford at the Philadelphia Inquirer. He is one of the few who writes with grace. I have to confess I do not follow many of them today so I am sure there are some other great ones out there. Maybe...
Our last question for you, wince you're headed for the Lone Star State in a few weeks: When you come back to Texas, what’s a must-have meal for you?
BARBECUE BARBECUE BARBECUE!!!!!!!!!!! Eat off of wax paper. None of the frilly stuff poorly imitated back east.
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